The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 236: In Their Footsteps

Loris, speedboat, anbd groupies

The rising sun cast shadows across the walls of the Flying Cloud's control car. Ahead of the ship, the ocean glittered in the morning light. To the south, a plume of smoke trailed from the peak of one of the many volcanic islands that dotted this part of the Pacific. Inside the car, the mood was businesslike. They'd refueled and regassed the ship at Palu. Now they were approaching Ternate, in the Mollucas.

"How will we manage the investigation, sir?" asked Lieutenant Iverson.

"We will wish to obtain more information regarding our quarry's movements before we proceed," Everett observed. "They'll almost certainly have called at Ternate to resupply. I believe we should send a party in on the launch to investigate. Jenkins, what resources does Naval Intelligence have on the island?"

"I understand that they maintain a confidential agent in the port itself," said the signalman.

Everett nodded thoughtfully. "Our party will wish to contact the fellow."

"How will they manage this without being noticed?" asked Jenkins. "The Dutch East India Company keeps a close watch on shipping in the Mollucas. A group of foreigners arriving in a fast American motorboat of a type used by smugglers is sure to attract attention."

"True," mused Everett. "We shall have to make sure they attract the right sort of attention. We'll send Pierre and Loris under Mister Iverson's command. That should serve."

By now, launch deployments were almost routine -- to the extent that lowering a heavy wooden speedboat by hoist from an airship in the middle of the Pacific could ever be routine. The three airmen waited until their craft touched the water, yanked the releases, and managed to disconnect the falls before their craft could be dragged or capsized. Minutes later, they were underway.

Ternate was a small tropical port on the island of the same name. As principal gateway for the shipment of spices that the Dutch had long tried to monopolize, its customs officials were notorious for their severity. They studied Iverson and his party with some suspicion.

"Your name?" asked one.

"Bond," Iverson replied nonchalantly, "James Bond. And these are my companions, Stead and Napoleon."

The official noted this down with quick strokes of his pen. "What is your business in Ternate?" he demanded.

"We're yachtsmen," said Iverson. At Pierre's suggestion, they'd dressed the part, with tropical suits, boating hats, and neat black cravats.

The official scowled. "That's a rather small yacht."

"We lost a bet."

The official glanced at his companion. The other man shrugged, as if to suggest that eccentricities of this sort were to be expected from the English. He turned back to Iverson. "You can go," he announced sullenly, "but be aware that the VOC takes a severe view of smuggling, contraband, and espionage."

"As well you should, sir!" said Iverson.

In keeping with their disguise as tourists, the trio arranged a watchman for their vessel, sent their luggage on to the closest thing Ternate had to a hotel, then made their way into town. The locals watched as they passed. Apparently visiting English yachtsmen were not a common sight in the Mollucas. Not all of this scrutiny was innocent.

"We are being followed," said Pierre. "Notice those two men walking past the ropeworks."

Iverson risked a look over his shoulder. The men in question were not obvious, but they moved with a definiteness of purpose that was absent from the people around them. "Is there some way we can lose these fellows?" he asked.

Pierre smiled. "I believe your captain has made provisions for this eventuality." He indicated Loris, who'd paused to strike up a conversation with several island beauties. The women seemed fascinated by the airman's attention.

"Sir," said Loris, "if you don't need me at the moment, I believe these ladies have some things they wish to show me."

Iverson gave the rigger a nod. "Carry on."

Loris's new companions took him by the hand and led him away. The two agents exchanged glances, seemed to reach a some sort of decision, and set off after them.

"That was remarkably easy," Iverson said to Pierre.

The Frenchman nodded. "Your captain makes efficient use of available resources."

The Royal Navy's intelligence agent in Ternate proved to be a marine sergeant from Yorkshire who lived near the market posing as a beachcomber. This combination of North Country origins and Island lifestyle was so improbable that he'd entirely escaped Dutch scrutiny. He invited the party in when Iverson gave the countersign and poured them cups of an industrial-strength black tea.

"It's the best one can find here in the Mollucas," he offered by way of apology. "I don't believe it was originally intended as a beverage, but it can be made reasonably palatable by the addition of some cardamom."

"Do you have much to do here in your intelligence capacity?" asked Iverson.

"For the most part, no," the agent admitted. "My principle duty is to keep records of shipping, but this place's days of glory as a great commercial entrepot are long past. 'And all its nutmeg and its cloves are one with Ninevah and Tyre...'"

Iverson smiled at the misquote. "Our errand concerns shipping," he observed. "We're looking for one or more airships we believe may have called here under the false registration N-109."

The agent listened carefully as Iverson gave an account of their discoveries and surmises about the hijacked German and French airships. When the lieutenant was finished, he poured them more glasses of tea.

"A vessel using that number was at the station four days ago," he told them. "But I doubt this was your L-137. Her crew were quite obviously American."

"You are certain of this?" asked Pierre.

The agent smiled. "I passed several on the street, and their appearance was distinctive, like gangsters from some radio drama."

"Then we must have lost the L-137 and crossed paths with the Astra-Torres vessel," sighed Iverson. "Did the fellows undertake any business of note while they were here?"

"If so, they did it discreetly," said the agent. "but one of their lady passengers was set upon by a pair of local ne'er-do-wells and rescued by a crewman."

Iverson frowned. This reminded him of some event he couldn't pin down. "What were their names?" he asked.

The agent rummaged through a drawer to produce a sheet of newsprint. "I saved an account from what passes for a newspaper here," he said. "The lady remained anonymous, but the crewman gave his name as Starbuck."

"That," Pierre remarked, "must be a pseudonym."

"Unless his parents read Melville," mused Iverson. "Did the ship happen to be followed by a Royal Navy vessel?"

"This would be the Cottswold, R-382, commanded by a Commodore Ethan S. Clark?" said the agent.

"You met the gentleman?" asked Iverson.

"I was fortunate enough not to," the agent said dryly, " but his aide paid me a visit. You will understand that I'm not at liberty to disclose the topics of our discussion."

Iverson nodded. "The ship would have had two passengers named Miss Perkins and Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan. Did you happen to notice either one?"

The agent raised an eyebrow, then rummaged through the drawer to pull out another sheet of newsprint. "By an odd coincidence, this lady was attacked as well -- apparently by the same pair of miscreants -- and rescued by the gentleman you named."

Now it was Iverson's turn to look surprised. "Is this sort of thing a common occurrence in Ternate?"

"Not that I've noticed," said the agent. "One hopes it doesn't represent the beginning of a trend."

Next week: There's Something Special About That Girl...

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